The NFL's shift toward an aerial game has made pass catchers the marquee players on nearly every team's offense. Wide receivers and tight ends are suddenly coveted at a premium, with more teams putting the onus on the quarterback to toss the ball all over the yard to move the offense down the field.
With more teams looking to throw the ball early and often in the 2016 season, I thought it was a good time to rank the top 1-2 punches (WR1 and WR2; WR1 and TE1; or TE1 and TE2) in the NFL. After much consideration and internal debate, here are my top five pass-catching tandems in the NFL today:
1) Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, New York Jets
For all of the love Ryan Fitzpatrick has received after nearly guiding the Jets to a playoff berth, the dynamic duo on the perimeter made life easy for the journeyman passer. Marshall and Decker are not only ideally suited for their respective WR1 and WR2 roles, but they are big-bodied pass catchers with interchangeable skills and a knack for putting the ball into the paint. The Jets' pair accounted for 189 receptions, 2,529 yards and 26 touchdowns in 2015. Most impressively, the tandem combined for 35 receptions of at least 20 yards and 72.3 percent of their receptions resulted in first downs.
Those numbers certainly cement their standing as one of the best pass-catching tandems in the NFL, but it's the potential impact the unit could make this season -- with Matt Forte aligned in the backfield -- that has led me to tout the Jets' duo as the cream of the crop. Opponents will be unable to play "2-high" (Cover 2) due to Forte's prowess as a runner, and defensive coordinators are unlikely to bracket Decker or Marshall because of the two-time Pro Bowl back's exceptional receiving skills on the perimeter. With Decker and Marshall poised to see more one-on-one coverage on the outside, the Jets' tag team should remain the NFL's most dangerous 1-2 punch this season.
2) Allen Robinson and Allen Hurns, Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars are quietly emerging as a playoff contender behind an electric offense that lights up scoreboards behind an explosive pair of young receivers in Robinson and Hurns. The two have quickly blossomed into a formidable pairing that delivers explosive gains and splash plays in bunches. Robinson, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is a crafty playmaker with exceptional ball skills and strong hands. He routinely wrestles 50-50 balls away from defenders, but also flashes the quickness, balance and body control to separate from tight coverage. With Robinson also rounding into a dynamic route runner, the Jaguars' WR1 led the NFL with 31 receptions of 20-plus yards a season ago.
Hurns has significantly outplayed his status as an undrafted free agent to become a prolific pass catcher. The 6-foot-3, 205-pounder is one of only five active undrafted free agents to record 1,000-plus receiving yards and 10 touchdowns in a single season. As a clever route runner with impeccable timing and explosive short-area quickness, Hurns consistently separates from defenders on intermediate and vertical routes, particularly skinny post routes and speed corners or "sail" routes. Considering he is also a dangerous runner in the open field, Hurns gives the Jaguars a deadly playmaker at the WR2 spot.
As Blake Bortles continues to grow into a franchise quarterback, the rest of the football world will start to appreciate Robinson and Hurns as one of the NFL's scariest receiving duos.
3) Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett, New England Patriots
The Patriots have featured Gronkowski and Julian Edelman as a 1-2 punch in the passing game, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the arrival of Bennett will prompt the team to adopt a tight end-centric aerial attack in 2016. The ninth-year pro is an energetic pass catcher with an impressive combination of size, athleticism and leaping ability that makes him a nightmare to guard on the perimeter. In addition, Bennett is a rugged runner with the ball in his hands, as evidenced by his 1,066 yards after catch since 2013 -- ranking behind only Gronkowski's 1,208 yards after catch among tight ends. Considering Bennett's versatility and basketball background, he can play multiple roles in the Patriots' multi-faceted offense to create a nightmarish "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs and 2 WRs) for opponents to defend.
Gronkowski is the most unstoppable offensive weapon in the game. Checking in at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds with long arms and spectacular movement skills, the perennial Pro Bowler is impossible to defend in one-on-one -- and much of the time, two-on-one -- matchups. Gronkowski is a rare tight end with the size to overpower defenders, yet he also possesses the agility and movement skills to run away from coverage down the field. In addition, he has the length and width to box out defenders between the numbers, particularly down in the red zone. With 65 career touchdowns in 80 games, Gronkowski is a scoring machine with a penchant for putting the ball in the paint on a variety of slants, digs and back-shoulder fades.
The Patriots' receiving corps always stands out as a dangerous unit with Gronkowski featured as the marquee pass catcher, but the arrival of Bennett as a TE2 could make New England an indefensible aerial attack with a tight end-oriented emphasis. Given how well that approach worked with Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the rest of the league should be wary of the Patriots' decision to feature big bodies in the passing game.
4) A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert, Cincinnati Bengals
Despite being ravaged by free-agent defections at wide receiver, the Bengals remain on this list due to their deadly 1-2 combination of Green and Eifert. Green clearly has established himself as a top-five receiver after posting his fifth straight 1,000-yard season as the Bengals' WR1. The acrobatic juggler is an extraordinary talent with outstanding hand-eye coordination and ball skills. He excels at winning jump balls along the boundary and in the red zone, but also shows tremendous concentration snagging errant passes between the hashes. Green is a unique playmaker capable of acting as a chain mover or vertical threat in the Bengals' offense. After finishing with 19 receptions of at least 20 yards and notching first downs on 73.3 percent of his catches, Green is the quintessential WR1 to build a passing game around.
Eifert has emerged as the perfect complement to Green as a dynamic pass-catching tight end with sticky hands and outstanding movement skills. He brings receiver-like agility and explosiveness to the position, which makes him a threat to attack the defense down the seams on hash routes from 2x2 formations and skinny-post routes from the back side of trips or 3x1 sets. With the young, athletic pass catcher also possessing outstanding leaping ability (35.5-inch vertical jump at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine) and ball skills, Cincy has featured him prominently in the game plan as the team's designated red-zone weapon. As the Bengals look to reshape their passing game after the departures of Mohamed Sanuand Marvin Jones, the team can take solace in the fact that the Green-Eifert combination is as good as it gets in the NFL.
5) Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, Denver Broncos
The lack of quality quarterback play a season ago neutered the impact of the Broncos' electric receiving corps, but it still didn't prevent Thomas and Sanders from posting individual 1,000-yard seasons on the perimeter. The Broncos' Pro Bowl pass catchers continued to dominate opponents in the passing game despite the lack of long balls in the game plan. Thomas didn't bring his "A" game for much of the season, but made his presence felt as one of the premier catch-and-run playmakers in the NFL. He finished the season with 418 yards after catch, exhibiting a rugged running style that makes him a nightmare to bring down on quick screens and crossing routes designed to get him touches on the perimeter. Although Thomas was plagued by the dropsies in 2015, he remains one of the scariest receivers to defend on the perimeter.
Sanders routinely lives in the shadow of Thomas, but he is regarded as one of the most polished route runners in the business. He has all of the tools (speed, quickness, patience, creativity and savvy) to spin defenders around like tops in space. Studying Sanders' game on tape, it stands out that defenders are routinely unable to stay in his hip pocket despite playing with proper leverage and cushion prior to the snap. This is a testament to Sanders' superb acting skills and his deceptive maneuvers (stutter steps and head-and-shoulder fakes) within routes. He not only does a great job of selling the initial part of the route, but he flashes the quickness and burst to run away from defenders out of breaks. As a result, he is always open and increasingly becoming the Broncos' top receiver in critical situations.
While it is possible that I have Thomas and Sanders underrated on this list, based on their individual and collective talents, the duo sits at the bottom of my top five due to inconsistency from Thomas and a shaky quarterback situation that could lead to a run-first approach.